When I first heard about the bombings in Boston earlier this afternoon, my reaction was sterotypical: I was shocked and saddened. My heart went out to the victims and their families. An event that is literally world-famous, which draws tens of thousands of competitors annually, and which is a boon to the Boston business community, and is often associated with charitable causes, has been scarred by a particularly horrifying form of violence. It is a tragedy at the cultural level, and also at the personal level for all those involved.
Details are still trickling in, but there is no question that this appears to be a particularly gruesome attack. Many people lost limbs. As of this writing, the Boston Globe (who has dropped their paywall in light of the attacks), is reporting 3 killed and
125 140 injured. I am sure those numbers will rise as hospitals get their numbers in order. They are rightly focused on helping the victims, rather than getting the numbers straight.
Very shortly after the attacks, officials began reporting that undetonated explosive devices were being discovered elsewhere in the city. At that point, it became clear that this was an intentional attack.
And my heart sank.
Whenever there is a terrorist attack on American soil—apparent, actual, or threatened—two phenomenon generally accompany it. First, there is a general desire to discover “what went wrong” in the aftermath. We look at the Government entities who were supposed to prevent these tragedies from occurring, search for flaws, and try to fix them. This is understandable—everybody wants to figure out how to prevent future tragedies from occurring.
Unfortunately, the “fixes” that get proposed almost always involve significant deprivations of the civil liberties of innocent and law-abiding people who had nothing to do with the attack. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress passed the infamous PATRIOT Act, in all of its glory. Inside the PATRIOT Act is a particularly insidious provision which provided for “Delayed-Notice Search Warrants.” These new warrants, which allow police to enter and search a home without notifying the owner until months after the search was conducted, were supposed to help federal officials catch terrorists more easily. Instead, more than 9 out of every 10 applications for delayed-notice search warrants were used for narcotics enforcement. A device that was supposed to help us fight terrorists is being used instead to fight the notoriously failed War on Drugs—a realization that has left many to realize that the expansion of police power authorized by the PATRIOT Act was, for the most part, unnecessary and ineffective in helping the country to counter terrorist threats.
And that’s the problem with the first post-terrorism phenomenon: people immediately become willing to sacrifice their civil rights, despite the fact that those sacrifices, almost without fail, are later revealed to be ineffective and unnecessary in the long run. As Justice Brennan said in 1987:
For as adamant as my country has been about civil liberties during peacetime, it has a long history of failing to preserve civil liberties when it perceived its national security threatened. This series of failures is particularly frustrating in that it appears to result not from informed and rational decisions that protecting civil liberties would expose the United States to unacceptable security risks, but rather from the episodic nature of our security crises. After each perceived security crises ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. but it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along.
Despite this well-recognized pattern of history, I have no doubt that when the dust settles on this latest tragedy, we will see pundits and officials scrambling to figure out what went wrong in Boston. They will ask how we could’ve missed the explosive devices before they were detonated. And they will seek to discover what part of our law enforcement institutions and national security apparatus must be “strengthened” in order to prevent another tragedy like this from happening in the future. It is unfortunate that “strengthening” those institutions often comes at the cost of marginalizing various groups within American society.
This brings me to the second phenomenon that occurs in the wake of national tragedies in America: the rousing of dormant Islamophobia and animosity towards Arabs. While things are not as bad as they were in the wake of 9/11 when hate crimes towards Arab and Muslim Americans skyrocketed, one can already see the tendrils of hatred towards Muslim and Arab citizens creeping into the public sphere.
This is particularly frustrating. As I was browsing the twittersphere for news about the Boston Marathon bombing, I made a point to sample some of the reactions from Muslim tweeters. Muslims of diverse backgrounds were as horrified by the violence as anyone else. Here is a small sampling of some of the reactions:
And yet, despite the outrage and empathy, there is also fear. It is a fear that every Muslim person has when a large tragedy of any sort occurs in America. It is a fear that leads Muslim citizens to mutter phrases such as "Please don’t be a Muslim" in the wake of an attack:
[A] Libyan Twitter user named Hend Amry wrote, “Please don’t be a ‘Muslim.’” Her message was retweeted by more than 100 other users, including well-known journalists and writers from the Muslim world.
Jenan Moussa, a journalist for Dubai-based Al-Aan TV, retweeted the message “Please don’t be a ‘Muslim’” and added that the plea was “The thought of every Muslim right now.” Moussa’s message was forwarded more than 200 times.
Every time a large tragedy occurs in America, Muslims pray for the safety of their families. They are forced to hang their heads low and dutifully remind everyone that they hate being bombed too, as insultingly obvious as that should be. They are forced to do this despite being the vast majority of victims of terrorist violence, and despite the fact that on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombing, 231 Iraqi citizens were killed or injured in bombings in three cities in Iraq, and America did not even bat a lash. Dead innocent Muslim bodies in foreign countries are ignored, while living innocent Muslim bodies in America are forced to vicariously answer for the depraved actions of mad men, latter of whose colleagues may have killed the former’s loved ones in a previous attack.
And thus, we see reactions of this sort:
And yet there is some hope. The initial backlash against Muslim citizens seems to be less intense than it has been in the past. Nonetheless, it remains. In light of this, it is helpful to remember the words of Max Fisher, who offered the following extraordinarily insightful remarks at the Washington Post:
There will be displays of true sympathy from the Muslim world regardless of the religion of those responsible for the fatal blasts in Boston — as there were after both Sept. 11, 2001, and the deadly December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Should the incident turn out to have even the slightest connection to a professed observer of Islam – a possibility that, according to Moussa and others, some Muslims are dreading – those gestures of support may look something like the handmade posters in Benghazi last September, a declaration of solidarity and a gentle reminder that Muslims despise terrorism just as much as anyone else.
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